On Tuesday, Phillip Fulmer left Vols fans across the nation breathless. He announced that the oft-troubled running back LaMarcus Coker had been suspended indefinitely.
Chris Low of Volquest.com reported that his suspension is due to a violation of the university's substance abuse policy. This is apparently not his first failure. Generally one would have to fail multiple times before being suspended.
This suspension came much harder than, say the suspension of James Banks a couple of years ago for Fulmer. "Sometimes you get young people who you don't necessarily want to be around," Fulmer said. "LaMarcus is not one of those guys. He's a good person. He's got some issues, and we'll try to get through it." It sounds like Fulmer is not giving up on Coker quite yet.
When asked about when and if Coker would be reinstated, Fulmer said "He's got to go through the process, I can't tell you whether it's going to be a week, two weeks or a month. I'm really not going to talk about it more until I know more about the whole scenario."
LaMarcus will have to successfully complete an outpatient substance abuse counseling program and possibly meet other parameters set by Fulmer before he can return. We won't even speculate how long that will take, but one can assume that he will at least be out for the season-opener against Cal, a game in which he would have likely seen a lot of carries.
So the question now is, how do the running backs currently on the roster shoulder the load that Coker has left?
Arian Foster came out of the spring first on the depth chart at running back and figured to be the guy regardless. Many speculated that had LaMarcus not been in Fulmer's doghouse so frequently, this would not have been the case, but I beg to differ. Foster averaged nearly 150 yards in his first five starts on the way to a 879 yard 2004 campaign. And get this, are you ready? He didn't start until the end of October against South Carolina when Gerald Riggs Jr. went down with injury. That's half a season.
Also Foster, at 6'1" 215 lbs is the more typical NFL style running back that Tennessee has depended on in the past. And if you think the fumble in the Outback Bowl vs. Penn State is behind him, think again. Foster has a newspaper clipping of the fumble taped inside of his locker and he touches it each time he leaves for the field. This guy is ready to shoulder the load.
Then you have Montario Hardesty, he is probably the best all-purpose running back the Vols have. The guy has elusiveness, he can run over defenders, and he is gifted at catching balls out of the backfield. His one knock is his inability to stay healthy. He was lost his freshman year due to a significant knee injury and was never truly healthy all of last year. But Hardesty says he's finally healthy again and ready to show the form he displayed as a true freshman. Here's hoping we see more runs like the one in the Cal game last year where he shrugged off defenders on a play that appeared dead and marched all the way to the end zone for six.
But don't forget incoming freshman Lennon Creer, a four star running back that many schools coveted last year out of Tatum, Texas. Creer rushed for 2,150 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. No player is a sure thing coming out of High School, but there is a reason schools such as Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama were all banging on his door trying to get a visit. Unfortunately for those schools, Trooper Taylor was already inside and had Big Orange earmuffs on his prized recruit.
Creer figured to redshirt before the Coker suspension, but now it appears he will definitely see the field this year as a true freshman and will likely contribute in a big way.
I guess if you are going to have a blow to your program such as this, it is lucky that it is at a position where you are deep, such as is the case here.
The Vols will be fine without Coker, the question then becomes, will Coker be fine without the Vols? How bad does he want to play football? Is he the kid that gives up after being knocked down? Or is he the warrior that doesn't know quit and will do everything and anything required to get back to doing what he loves most?
Time will tell.